Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Brilliant, disturbing, intense, elaborate and ingenious are all words I'd use to describe Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Marlon James has taken the epic fantasy genre to a new level and in a different direction that feels uniquely his own. The setting is rich with African influences, supernatural beings like I've never seen/heard of before, and a brutality that reflects what life would really be like in a society filled with shape shifters, witches, demons, zombies, vampires and so much more. Many of these creatures are called different things and it was engrossing to learn about new legends, myth and lore that James borrows from.
While this book dragged at times and had me flipping backwards to re-read sections (so many names!), and briefly hit/passed my 'ick' gore threshold; Black Leopard, Red Wolf is already on my favourites shelf and I cannot wait to read this dense masterpiece again, never mind the rest of the series.
So let's get into the details of this 600+ page monster...
Please note: that the quotes below are EXACTLY as written in the published book. I did not make any grammar or spelling mistakes. Instead this is the style of certain characters speech.
Characters & Lead Narrative
Our lead man is Tracker. We experience the entire story via his narrative. He is actually telling the story to a inquisitor (like Interview with the Vampire) after the events have transpired. So you can be reassured from page 1 that he at least lives through everything that transpires (as it's all history to him). Tracker has no 'real' name but is known far and wide as 'the man with the nose' of a wolf. Able to distinctly smell people, items, excrement, really anything at any given time in any place he is present at. While we see Tracker on his own and with a single companion at times the bulk of the story is him and a host of characters. Most aren't assembled until we hit Chapter 10 (just past 200 pages). This unlikely group of travelers is called a fellowship at one point. Thanks for the direct Lord of the Rings LotR) reference James! For the avid reader there are at least three more references I picked up on through the course of the book that are clear LotR references.
Each of our characters in the group is representative of a traditional archetype with a twist. We have the gentle but deadly strong giant in our Ogo. An unrelentingly harsh woman in the Moon Witch. A man who is more animal than human in the Leopard. The prefect soldier who is so in love he can't see anything beyond his desired. And mercenaries that remind us all that eventually every society is the same; it's all about the money (insert Han Solo reference here). Oh, and did I mention a couple of them are former lovers or bed partners with Tracker? This makes for some fun exchanges between our manly men.
The non-fellowship characters are unique but also archetypes in their own way. Vampires/zombies with a twist:
"the living dead with lightning running through they body where blood used to run"
A water being that loves to trick everyone. An assassin who can control people's minds (scary right?!). And just in case that wasn't enough to try and get your head around there are disfigured children (including one made of blue smoke), and the Ten and Nine Doors that can magically transport characters from one area to another. Albeit there are some 'gotcha's' to any magical use...
The narrative is told by Tracker; although at times you can easily forget this as there is still dialogue and descriptions like a traditional novel. Similar to Lestat's interview story it is a little surprising that Tracker has (what appears to be) perfect recall of all the events. Interestingly I suspect (hope) this point will come up in the future of this series where perhaps the question is asked about whose 'version' of the events is truthful. For the purpose of just reading this book you will need to accept that Tracker is telling his story with great detail as he remembers it.
Some might argue this book is about the reason our fellowship exists (to find a boy and return him to his mother); but I would argue it's really the story of Tracker's transformation from what he was 5 years prior to what he has become at the time he is telling the story. I especially feel this way as the fellowship isn't even formed or an understood plot point until after page 200. Additionally, there is such a breadth of change in our lead character that at times it's hard to remember whose side he's on (if Tracker has one at all?). Because of this the plot felt lost to me at times (or I just didn't care?); but at the end to all comes back to the missing boy. I did appreciate that the ending ensured I remembered the plot and reason for the story post Chapter 9.
At times I felt like the narration aspect was lost (the exact same mistake Anne Rice made ironically); but overall that didn't bother me much until the last 100 pages or so. I think a couple more reminders about who was telling the story and to whom (Tracker to the Inquisitor) would have been prudent in the last 200 pages. It might have broken up the story a little. But honestly a breath or two wouldn't be all bad as we approached the very intense ending.
Names, Maps and Language... oh my!
Let's deal with three specific things I loved or hated.
1) Names: there are a crazy number of names or descriptive words that are similar to names in this book. For example just in the 'S' category we have: Sadogo, Sogolon, Sangoma, Sagomin, Sasabonsam. Now some of those are names and others are words that describe a type of monster, place or witch. But when you are struggling to remember any of the terms being used it can give the reader a headache. I definitely cursed James a few times for not explaining better who and what all these things were continually through the story. Thankfully for our main characters there is a list of names and who they are (and the location we first meet them) at the front of the book. I flipped to this a few dozen times (at least) while reading.
2) Maps: who doesn't love a good map?! There are over a dozen beautiful maps in this book. From our introductory kingdom/continent look (with magical doors marked and all!) to a map of each place or city/town that is visited at the beginning of each chapter. This helped me immensely to orient myself each time a door was used and near the end as things moved very quickly.
3) Language: a lot of our characters are lesser educated (to say the least) and so their language is stilted, lacking grammar or just flat out awkward. This meant I had to read a lot of dialogue lines a couple times. But it also gave me some really unique quotes; including this one (said by my fave character):
"How you keep to memory what the world tell you to forget."
Certainly this slows down the reading experience. But given how much content and action there is in James book it might be a good thing to read it all a little slower. I felt it gave a genuine voice to each character as none of them use language in quite the same way.
The breadth of issues that James touches on are far too many to discuss here. But some of the key points driven home include what is it that causes divisions amoungst the people of the entire Kingdom. These include (but are not limited to): sexuality (not everyone is okay with non-hetero choices), race, magic use, shape shifting, deities/religion, power and morality. What is a definite focus during Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that it's not always obvious what is morally 'correct' and that being on the 'right' side will likely end in an untimely death for the average person.
What is also investigated is why people just don't care anymore about the perception or interpretation of their actions. Sometimes you just want to do something. This line from Tracker sums up this desire well:
"On the way there I was hoping to meet a demon, or a spirit of someone who would feed the hunger of my two new axes. I truly wanted a fight."
There are many times when I found myself accepting what could otherwise be quite horrific as just the way this world is. And recognizing that our characters have had it hard enough without needing to analyse every decision to determine it's acceptability.
Who is Black Leopard, Red Wolf written for?
You may be wondering at this point who the primary audience is for this book. Let me be very clear here: THIS IS NOT YOUNG ADULT. Not at all. Nothing about this is appropriate for anyone under the age of 18 (maybe even 21 to be totally honest).
This is a story for those who love epic, elaborate books (like Gardens of the Moon or Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell). This is for those who are tired of the typical romance, good vs. evil and obvious outcomes. Black Leopard, Red Wolf challenged almost every value I currently have. I loved it's ability to make me think and consider things from a different (and sometimes very morally questionable) perspective. If you want a story that pushes boundaries at every turn, with a cast of lovable and yet hate-worthy characters then this is probably the book for you.
One suggestion when reading the story: do not try to figure out all the things happening. You likely won't be able to piece out any of the insanely complex mysteries in this book to start with. I gave up and used the advice a friend gave me years ago when I went to see Inception (movie with DiCaprio) for the first time: just enjoy the ride. Analyse and consider after or on your next time through the content. I am greatly looking forward to my re-read(s?) and linking so many more things together.
Can you handle it?
Maybe you think this book might be for you but you are concerned about if it's going to be 'too much'. Let me say that without a doubt this is a depraved, disgusting, morally reprehensible, wicked world James has dropped us into; but consider the genius of an author that can write a scene so intense you actually feel ill or turned off. For me this shows crazy literary talent!
For those willing to give it a chance, if you can handle and get past Chapter 8 you'll be fine for the rest. Chapter 8 is the pinnacle of the gore. It doesn't get worse. It is note worthy that our core group of characters consists mostly of gay men (representation!) and there is a fair bit of sex talk between them. Now for those that aren't male or haven't been privy to a true male sex 'chat', let me warn you; it's not necessarily flattering (to anyone or any gender or sexuality). It's harsh, crude and well truthful. Sex is messy and pretending it isn't is just naive. These characters certainly don't hide the reality of m/m sex. One of my favourite parts of James writing is the constant banter between our characters; especially the male past-lovers.
On that note here is my Warning for those who are thinking, wow this book sounds amazing. I am hesitant to recommend this book to anyone (and yet want to recommend it to everyone all the same). I cannot predict your response to the torture and darkness James has given us. All I can say is I think it's brilliant; I love it's dark, gritty portrayal of what life might be life in a less organized society. If you read it and have nightmares or are turned off please don't blame me. You were warned.
On that note, a rant...
To those who claim anyone who likes this book (never mind loves it as I do) must be depraved, awful, horrible, morally abject or just downright evil people; I'd like to remind you that our world is just as awful as this one.
And that you should consider these points:
1) Enjoying this doesn't make me a psycho serial killer. The same as watching CSI doesn't make you a murder expert or obsessed with dead bodies, even though every show starts with a dead person (speaking of morbid...); nor does my love here even remotely infer that I am similar to our characters. It merely means I am entertained by the content. For the record I hate super gory movies. I still have nightmares about House of a Thousand Corpses. Reading content and seeing it are very different activities for my brain and I can handle a lot more when I read something than when I see it on screen.
2) Our world is a brutal place. Many of us, including myself, are able to disassociate from the awful things that happen on Earth daily in order to survive. But that doesn't mean they aren't happening and that we should allow ourselves to forget what people are capable of. Everything that happens in this book (that isn't related to magic or supernatural) is 100% plausible in real life. People do these types of awful things. Everything James writes about is an event that has likely happened (at least once) to a human or animal in real life.
3) This is fiction and it's okay to like any fiction. It is your choice to engage in nicer stories and I respect that. But I also expect others to show me the same respect. I don't think much of contemporary romance novels; but that doesn't mean I think all people who read them are fluffy, love-sick women. See what I mean? I can enjoy literature without personally embodying the subject matter or having the tone of the story represent me as a person.
4) Respect is important and I expect it to be given for ALL tastes. No one is forcing this book down your throat; it's not 'required reading' so don't pretend it's existence is abhorrent or an issue. If you believe that it is a problem that this was published then you have just jumped on the banning books bandwagon (and I don't believe the average reader condones this practice). We (should) live in a world of free speech; even when that speech is repulsive to some people it must still be permitted.
A quick side story... When I was 15 years old and first read Game of Thrones I thought it was the best book in the world. And at that time for me it was. Elaborate, epic fantasy where characters actually died and awful things happened (even to children) was what I craved. Teenage me would have died to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf (and shouldn't be allowed to until at least 16 or older!). I feel like I found in this story a darkness I knew (even back then) existed in our world and occasionally with myself and others. Today at 37 I can definitely say that James has provided me with a story I didn't know I needed so badly. Over the years I've come to find some connection with other grim-dark epic fantasy books including: Sara Douglass 'Wayfarer Redemption' series, Scott Bakker's 'Prince of Nothing' series and (of course) Game of Thrones. Generally I loved these books because 'evil' won, people were killed and NOT brought back, and that each of them delves into the idea of the 'good guy' losing (either the battle or themselves). Ironically none of these are my favourite fantasy series; but they hit a dark place in me with their mood, setting or characters. In Black Leopard, Red Wolf I feel I have found a story that really spoke to me. Even James lack of female representation is acceptable to me as, let's face it, most women (including me) couldn't play with the boys on the turf established by James. To feel the greed, lust, arrogance and other emotions of James characters has allowed me to remember that it's okay to be a little dark inside; and has reassured me that the average person may also have this blackness inside them and still be a (generally) good, functioning member of society.
Any book that takes me 23 days to read, and which I can still say I loved, must be amazing. My husband believes this is the longest I've ever taken to read a book in 10 years; not including one year when I was in and out of hospital. He may well be right. And yet I want to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf again right now; even if it takes another 23 days. How crazy!
All that said, I will confess I have not read anything other than short stories (all of which I loved) by Joe Ambercrombie, John Gwyne, Mark Lawrence or Glen Cook. But let me assure you they are all on my TBR and have been for sometime. A consideration that I thought of; maybe Black Leopard, Red Wolf came along at a point in my life when it just fit perfectly. Certainly Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel did that for me in college many years ago; it was just the perfect book for that point in my life and remains a favourite still today. Same as GOT as in my story above.
The moral crisis in our world, that is played out every day in the news, has been grating on me for years; and so I appreciate Marlon James reminding me that my small slice of the world could *always* be a lot worse. Maybe even worse than I ever imagined. I also appreciate his willingness to publish something so deep and dark knowing that many people might consider him awful because of where his imagination takes this story.
Last note, I did something unusual with this book; these days I have a rule about starting epic fantasy without knowing there is a completion in the future. GRRM has burned me so bad over the years that I have actually changed how I select my fantasy reads. I broke this rule here because I just had to know what the buzz was all about. I just hope James doesn't break my heart and mind by never publishing the rest of the story. Although interestingly... unlike GOT I could actually accept the ending here as a stand-alone. I'm dying for more; but if nothing more was written; at least there is a certain dark ambiguity that book 1 leaves off on which makes it an ending of a particular quality.
As always my highest compliment is to purchase a print copy of a book for my bookshelf after reading an ARC or library version (I read the hardcover from my library on this one). I am definitely getting a copy of this book. In fact I'm already perusing online to see if I can get a signed first edition hardcover copy to put next to my first paperback edition of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and my signed by George R. R. Martin (I met him long before HBO had their contract) Game of Thrones hardcover.
I'm really not kidding when I say that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is that damn good and I'm very confident that it will remain a favourite in the future for me. Even if it's a little hard to take at times and consumes a fair chunk of reading time.
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